x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Guardiola is the envy of Europe

Barcelona have won the first trophy of Spain's domestic season, but it was the manner of their performance rather than the silverware which proved more edifying in Catalonia.

Barcelona have won the first trophy of Spain's domestic season, but it was the manner of their performance rather than the silverware which proved more edifying in Catalonia. Pep Guardiola's side beat Athletic Bilbao 3-0 on Sunday night in the Camp Nou to seal a 5-1 aggregate scoreline in Spain's Super Cup. "It's our first trophy of the season," said a pleased Guardiola when he finally turned up in to face the media at a quarter to one in the morning. "We have reached an excellent level at the right time, the team have a good dynamic, they pass the ball quickly and dominate. We are ready to continue where we left off last season."

With a front line of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and new record signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Guardiola started with the strongest Barca team since May's Champions League final. To the delight of the huge 85,000 crowd, Xavi, Ibrahimovic and Messi all combined beautifully to set up Barca's first goal, the Swede playing a delightful pass with the outside of his foot into the path of the Argentinian, who lobbed on-rushing goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz. With Athletic boss Joaquin Caparos resting key players ahead of this week's Europa Cup play-off against Norway's Tromso, the Basque stopper was a busy man.

Ibrahimovic may have taken penalties and free-kicks at Inter Milan last season, but he was left in no doubt as to who will assume responsibility at Barca when Messi picked up the ball for a spot kick which he converted for the second. Substitute Bojan Krkic, who looked out of sorts last term and was linked with loan moves, is thriving under Guardiola's tutelage and converted the third, intercepting a back pass from Ander Iturraspe.

The Super Cup is Spain's traditional season opener between the winners of the league and Copa del Rey. Barca won both last season, beating Athletic 4-1 in the final and have now won eight Super Cups, the same as Real Madrid. They can win a further five trophies this season, starting with Friday's Uefa Super Cup against Uefa Cup winners Shakhtar Donestsk in Monaco. Guardiola's line up marked a change in his strategy of fielding younger players pre-season. A virtual reserve Barca side were beaten 1-0 by Manchester City last week in the Gamper Trophy in front of over 94,000 at Camp Nou, with Guardiola invoking muted criticism that he had not respected the history of the trophy. He maintained that he wanted to give emerging players experience adding: "If we don't get reinforcements, some of them will be staying on. They are inexpert because they are young, but they are ready. It was the same once for Iniesta and Xavi. We have some top-class players coming through."

The issue of reinforcements is one which is dominating the sport papers in Barcelona. Both Guardiola and technical director Txiki Beguiristain have admitted that they would like new players, but it is complex. To improve, Barca need to buy premium talent, yet after paying ?66 million (Dh343m) for Ibrahimovic, they are unable to match the transfer fees paid by Real and City this summer. Barca were also hit with a larger than expected ?60m tax bill last week.

The Catalans have made it clear that they want a centre-half and Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic is among their preferred targets, but despite the largest playing budget in their history, Barca realise they would not be able to prise the Serbian away from Old Trafford without paying the kind of money they do not have. For now, the treble winners will have to continue as they are, with coaches everywhere envying Guardiola's position.

Andy Mitten lives in Barcelona, writing about La Liga for more than a decade for FourFour Two and The Independent @Email:amitten@thenational.ae